When high school students finish up their senior year, many of them go on to pursue college degrees. Today, it is very difficult to get even an entry-level job without a bachelor's degree, and most people who find work without this degree struggle to get the job they want. It is worth knowing the different levels and tiers of college degrees, so when it comes time to decide what you want to do with your future, you are prepared.

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The different levels of college degrees are most commonly listed as associate, bachelor's, master's and doctorate.

What Kinds of College Degrees Are There?

Most people who have researched post-secondary education are familiar with the idea of four-year colleges. These schools can be in specialized areas like science or performing arts, or they can be more general programs for undergraduate study which fall under the umbrella of "liberal arts."

Most students who graduate from high school with plans for college plan to attend a four-year college. The degree most generally attained after graduating from a four-year college is a "bachelor's degree," often abbreviated as a "B.A." or a "B.S." In some cases, a student may earn a Bachelor's of Fine Arts or "B.F.A."

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After earning a bachelor's degree, the next tier of college degrees is the master's degree. Most master's programs are typically two years long. There is no limit on the time when you can apply to a master's program, but students tend to apply to these programs right after graduation. Master's degree programs are for people who have identified a field of study that they would like to pursue to apply for higher-echelon jobs in their field.

The highest degree attainable after earning a master's degree is a doctorate degree, more commonly known as a Ph.D. A Ph.D. stands for "Doctor of Philosophy," however, that does not necessarily mean that the candidate holds a degree in the field of Philosophy. Doctor of Philosophy is sort of a catchall term for a degree that connotes the highest level of academic research and achievement in a particular discipline. Earning a Ph.D. qualifies the degree holder to be a professor at the university level and to head up departments in his or her field.

What Is an Associate Degree vs. a Bachelor's Degree?

Many people who are considering applying to be accepted for post-secondary study have the option of attending a four-year college to earn their bachelor's degree, or they can attend a two-year program to earn their associate degree. While both offer the opportunity for career advancement beyond what a high-school diploma can bring, the two degrees are very different. It is important to learn about what they offer, so you can assess which educational program is most appropriate for your goals.

An associate degree is a post-secondary degree that is directed at preparing students for entry-level jobs in a particular set of careers. Associate degrees are generally specialized and give the degree holder the expertise, experience and background necessary to begin a career in a particular field.

Almost all of the fields that associate degree holders pursue are vocational in nature, meaning that they are focused on the performance of a particular job or occupation. The classification of associate degrees includes the A.A. or Associate of Arts, the A.S. or Associate of Science and the A.A.S or Associate of Applied Science.

A bachelor's degree, on the other hand, is a far less specific credential. A bachelor's degree is earned after four years of study at the undergraduate level. Earning a bachelor's degree means that the student has engaged in the pursuit of a well-rounded education and taken classes beyond those that are required for entry into a certain profession. Bachelor's programs ask that the students declare a "major" at the end of their second year, which will define the scope of their studies for the final two years.

What Are the Four Years of College Called?

The four years of college that characterize the bachelor's degree are known as "undergraduate study." As there are various types of degrees, there are also various kinds of curriculum to earn a bachelor's degree.

Students attending a very traditional college at a large state school may find their first year or even two years filled with requirements, requisite classes and lectures that do not leave much time for exploring their personal interests. Students at smaller liberal arts colleges, on the other hand, may have a very self-directed curriculum that asks that they choose their courses deliberately and does not have any requirements for their academic program whatsoever.

Choosing the right college for you can be difficult. Students are often influenced by the decisions of friends or the desires of family members when they attempt to make their decision about which college to attend. It can be difficult at the age of 17 or 18 to know exactly what you want your college career to look like. As many people will tell you, you will change your mind about the career you want to pursue most likely more than once between the time you begin your college career and the time you graduate.

A good strategy for helping to narrow down the colleges you are considering is to think about what your interests are. Think about what you like to do in your spare time, and think about what your favorite activities and pastimes are. If your favorite activities and pastimes involve sports, watching games, playing sports, working out and engaging in other athletic activities, you will want to pick a school with a strong athletic program. Likewise, if you are most interested in watching movies, visiting art galleries, reading books or making art, you will want to look at schools with strong arts programs.

Why Get a Master's Degree?

There are a number of reasons why a student may choose to pursue a master's degree, but almost all of them involve employment. Advanced positions in specialized fields, particularly executive positions often require an advanced degree, and students who earn a master's degree can put themselves on the fast-track to higher earnings and increased progress in their field. A master's degree is typically a program that takes between one and two years of specialized study in a particular area and often involves independent study, fieldwork or internships and the completion of a master's thesis.

Master's programs are also sometimes necessary for certain professions, such as teaching in a public school or being a social worker. Another reason that people earn a master's degree is that it is a prerequisite for most Ph.D. programs. A master's is a stepping stone between the general education program of the typical bachelor's degree and the highly specialized research-oriented doctorate degree program.

While many students may feel that a master's degree is a necessity for them to pursue their line of work, it is not a requirement in many fields and in many vocations. Very often, people in fields like the arts, entertainment, hospitality, marketing, media and real estate do not need academic degrees to move up in their fields. Instead, professional experience, hard work, industry knowledge and skills are the credentials that help them advance in their chosen career.

What are the Qualifications for a Ph.D.?

Among the various types of degrees, the doctorate often referred to as the Ph.D., is considered to be the highest across disciplines. While the highest degree in every field is a doctorate, not all doctorates are Ph.Ds. Some doctorate degrees, like the one that allows you to practice medicine, have different names. The medical doctorate degree is called an M.D., the clinical psychology doctorate is called a Psy.D., and the doctorate of technology is known as a DTech. Regardless of the moniker, a doctorate in any field means that the individual in question has attained the highest level of education possible in his or her field.

The qualifications for entry into a Ph.D. program vary greatly depending on the discipline being pursued and the university's particular program. While some Ph.D. programs do not require that applicants have already earned their master's degree, most of them do. Some Ph.D. programs are of a longer length and encompass some of the coursework that a student would typically do during his or her master's program. These programs allow students to complete in one program the academic coursework of two degrees, although they will not graduate with both degrees.

To earn the Ph.D. there is a significant amount of work involved that is not required at the undergraduate or master's level. While bachelor's and master's programs are mostly characterized by classes, lectures, seminars and papers, the Ph.D. is a research-centric degree.

This means that far less time is spent in classes and in doing coursework. Instead, the bulk of the degree program is spent conducting research, teaching undergraduate students who are taking classes in the same discipline and working on the candidate's dissertation. In addition to the a chance for the student to learn more, Ph.D. programs are meant to allow the Ph.D. candidate to pursue the kind of research that enriches and furthers the scholarship of the discipline.

How Do You Know What Type of Degree to Get?

It can be very confusing and daunting to decide whether or not to pursue a certain kind of degree. Because a high school degree does not offer much in the way of career opportunity, most students who are hoping for a career that they can grow in choose to apply to bachelor's degree programs after high school. These students are pursuing college degrees in order to have a wider range of professional options after graduation.

Many students who are in fields that do not require a master's degree may find that such programs are available to them and wonder whether or not they should apply. This is a tough decision. Master's degree programs can be extremely expensive and very time-consuming. For people who already have full-time jobs or family responsibilities, the idea of earning another degree may be out of the question. However, for certain individuals in particular careers, earning a master's in order to move up in their field may be a necessity.

It is a good idea to carefully consider the type of career you want, and look at some of the leaders in the field. Did they get a Ph.D? Did they need a bachelor's degree? When you look at job listings for entry level jobs in this field, what kinds of requirements do employers have? By considering these elements and working backwards to make sure you have what you need, you will be able to come to a decision about what kind of degree to get.

About the Author

Ashley Friedman is a freelance writer with experience writing about education for a variety of organizations and educational institutions as well as online media sites. She has written for Pearson Education, The University of Miami, The New York City Teaching Fellows, New Visions for Public Schools, and a number of independent secondary schools. She lives in Los Angeles.